Time seems to be running out for Tony Blair. With the opposition
Conservatives leading in the polls and control of his own party
slipping, he desperately needed a good performance in two by-elections
held last week. Instead he got more bad news.

In the Welsh seat of Blaenau Gwent, formerly one of Labour’s safest,
the by-election was caused by the death of independent MP Peter Law.
Law won the seat last year in a protest vote after Labour head office
had insisted on a female candidate. Labour had hoped to win it back,
but although their vote improved significantly, Law’s former campaign
manager, Dai Davies, beat them comfortably with 55.5% of the two-party
vote.

The other seat, Bromley & Chislehurst, is in safe Conservative
territory in London’s suburbs; Labour was never going to be in
contention there. But it suffered the embarrassment of being relegated
to fourth place, its 6.2% putting it behind not just the Tories and
Liberal Democrats but also the far-right UK Independence Party (7.6%).

Bromley & Chislehurst, however, was also a wake-up call for Tory
leader David Cameron. The Conservative vote dropped almost 12,000, and
the Liberal Democrats came close to winning the seat. Previous MP Eric
Forth had 71.6% of the two-party vote against the Lib Dems last year;
that fell to just 51.4%. Lib Dem leader Menzies Campbell hailed the result as “stupendous”.

What it shows, of course, is the extreme volatility created by
first-past-the-post voting. Labour’s vote dropped by 15% in
Bromley & Chislehurst not, realistically, because of discontent
with the Blair government but because Labour supporters saw a chance of
beating the Tories by voting Lib Dem. Conversely, the Conservative vote
in Blaenau Gwent is absurdly low (3.3%, up from 1.7% last year) not
because there are so few Conservatives there (although there wouldn’t
be many) but because they are mostly voting for the independent in
order to beat Labour.

So the three major parties, crowded together in the middle of the
political spectrum, all have their problems. Even the Lib Dems,
although doing well in by-elections (they won a Scottish seat from
Labour early this year), are languishing at 18% in the polls, down from 22% in last year’s general election.

Peter Fray

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